What the natural gas industry is missing about the energy transition 

It’s not an energy transition – it’s a supply increase with an emissions drop. That was the main message from industry at the North American Gas Forum in Washington, D.C. The annual conference, hosted by Energy Dialogues, brings together natural gas interests to discuss where the industry is headed, with perspectives from policymakers and civil society.

As one of the few NGO representatives in the room, I learned a lot from hearing what the industry sees next for the energy transition. Speakers talked about natural gas as the solution to a trinity of critical energy challenges: emissions mitigation, energy poverty, and energy security. But the discussions revealed some important blind spots in the industry’s energy transition plans.

Natural gas is cleaner than coal – but not cleaner than renewable energy

Several speakers highlighted how a large cause for declining US emissions since the early 2000s has been switching from dirty coal to “clean” natural gas, and that such coal-to-gas switching could enable further emission reductions in Asia. Some described US natural gas production as more “carbon-efficient” than that of other countries, suggesting an opportunity for expanded American gas infrastructure and US gas exports. While there was dialogue on the potential for carbon capture technology to mitigate emissions associated with natural gas, a few people acknowledged that there are major cost and technical barriers.

But discussions avoided the reality that burning natural gas still puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The industry often compares natural gas favorably with coal when it comes to emissions, but renewable energy is much cleaner and is quickly expanding. Driven by rapid improvements in the cost and technical feasibility of clean energy, 83% of new US power capacity in 2021 came from renewables. Meeting energy demand and net-zero goals by 2050 necessitates a further global buildout of renewables infrastructure, which can increase energy availability without increasing emissions.

In contrast to claims of natural gas’ low carbon intensity, the oil and gas industry often fails to appropriately manage its emissions of methane, a potent driver of climate change. The International Energy Agency says 70% of these emissions could be eliminated using currently available technologies, but Andrew Baxter, EDF’s Director of Energy Transition, highlighted that the industry still needs to “take radical steps” to cut methane emissions.

We need to address global energy poverty – but the climate impacts of gas undermine this effort

A core industry argument paints natural gas as an accessible energy source that can help hundreds of millions escape poverty. Natural gas, so the logic goes, will help meet the developing world’s increasing energy demand, in their pursuit of economic growth and prosperity.

Expanding access to energy is a vital goal but increasing fossil fuel use undermines poverty eradication through its continued, long-term global warming impacts. The International Institute for Sustainable Development finds “large [academic] consensus” that developing new oil and gas fields is incompatible with a 1.5C carbon budget, which is necessary to avoid the worst of planetary warming. The impacts of unmitigated climate change will disproportionately harm the most vulnerable populations, with 130 million expected to fall into climate-induced poverty in the next decade. Phasing out fossil energy today is necessary to avoid the escalating human costs of not transitioning to clean energy. Natural gas is associated with immediate health harms – such as asthma from the associated smog – but growing public and private investments in clean energy can spur sustainable development for the global poor, reflecting a better balance of economic and environmental priorities.

LNG exports could play a role – but there are cleaner paths to global energy security

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken global energy markets as Europe pivoted away from Russian fossil fuel exports. Some in the US see this as justification for a major long-term expansion of US liquified natural gas (LNG) exports to supply global allies.

But Europe’s real win lies in its boost to green energy. Clean power made up a quarter of the EU’s energy needs between March and September 2022, “the highest ever for this six-month period.” Combined with increasing global momentum for emissions mitigation, the International Energy Agency (IEA) finds that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will likely speed the global transition to green energy. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director, remarked that “increasingly, the big drivers [for new clean energy targets] are energy security as well as industrial policy.

Clean energy is a pathway to energy security and economic growth that avoids the climate-warming consequences of natural gas. Though predicated on addressing short-term energy needs, expanding LNG infrastructure today would lock in new carbon emissions for decades to come. Instead, environmentally responsible solutions can help fill the current energy supply crunch. EDF’s Derek Walker, who leads US programs, emphasized that “avoiding flaring can help meet US natural gas commitments to the EU.” That and other improvements to methane management can make the US industry a stronger partner to international buyers.

New investments bring optimism

Many conference participants were supportive of the Inflation Reduction Act’s potential to drive clean energy progress. The law’s extension of clean energy tax credits was welcomed as a means of encouraging innovation, with the potential to advance American leadership and accelerate decarbonizing technologies. Fulfilling this potential is critical for the industry as it takes aim at global energy security and energy poverty goals.